For more than four years, Michael Hoener tried to leave East Germany. Again and again he sought permission from the government to emigrate to the West. Each time the authorities turned down his visa application. They refused to explain why. Hoerner (not his real name) remained a Marxist. But, in the hope that he would be allowed out as a "religious undesirable," he gave up his job as an electrician to work as a poorly paid church gardener. Twice he was arrested for interference with public activity.
Finally, the young East German borrowed 8,000 duetsche marks ($5,000) through his West Berlin girlfriend for partial payment to a group of human traffickers to smuggle him out. He now lives in West Berlin.
"It's better that you don't publish how I got out," he says smiling. "There are others who want to leave by using the same method."
Last year, some 3,50 refugees managed to leave East Germany for the West. Federal authorities in Bonn expect approximately the same number by the end of 1980. This does not include the 8,000 to 9,000 East German immigrants, mainly old-age pensioners, who are legally permitted to leave.
Only a few hundred refugees, like Hoerner, escape by scaling border fortificattions or have themselves smuggled out through West Berlin transit routes. Many flee via Yugoslavia. Furthermore, according to Amnesty International, the London-based human rights organization, between 1,000 and 1, 500 political prisoners are "bought" every year by the Bonn government for hard currency and allowed to emigrate.
Technically the East Germans are not considered refugees. They automatically qualify for West German citizenship. The same goes for the estimated 55,000 ethnic Germans, many of whom cannot speak German, who arrive each year from the Soviet Union, Poland, Romania, and other East bloc countries.
What has really begun to severely strain West Germany's packed camps and processing centers is the arrival of vast numbers of mainly third-world immigrants, claiming political asylum but actually looking for work.
Relief officials estimate that roughly 150,000 foreigners -- notably from Turkey, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Lebanon, and Ethiopia -- will have applied for asylum by the end of the year. This represents a 14- fold increase over 1976.
Concerned that more such influxes would aggravate unemployment and stir resentment, the Bonn government has sought to counter what it considers flagrant abuse of its asylum laws. It has stiffened visa requirements, established more court procedures to deal with refugee cases, and limited appeal possibilities.
"We now reckon that as few as two or three asylum seekers per thousand are genuine," notes a senior government official at Zirndorf, the main West German refugee center in northern Bavaria. "The dilemma we are facing is how to distinguish between authentic refugees fleeing persecution and those who are just trying to work."
Some anti-immigrant feelings have been aroused, though no worse than in other parts of Europe. such felings are sometimes directed Against the 4 million legally established "guest workers" in the country.
Open hate against foreigners, whether "guest workers" or refugees, however, is more the work of extremists. Slogans have appeared in many towns like Nuremburg and Frankfurt screaming "asyl raus" (refugees, get out). And in August a right-wing group bombed a refugee center, killing two Vietnamese and injuring two others.
Attracted by West German prosperity, immigrants from impoverished third-world countries have used the asylum laws to gain reprieves of up to eight years through court appeals. The courts are obliged to scrutinize each individual case. In the meantime, asylum seekers have benefited from generous social security handouts and good wages.
West Germany is definitely the asylum seekers' first choice among European countries. Earlier this year, this reporter was traveling by bus toward the Iranian border in Pakistan. Most of the passengers were Pakistanis and Sri Lankans making their way overland to Germany. They had high expectations of finding employment and, through the grapevine, had become fully aware of West Germany's liberal laws.
The main problem confronting West Germany now is how far to go in clamping down on new arrivals. "A lot of these people are desperate for work, and it might take really harsh measures to deter them," observes one government official.
Under the 1949 West German Constitution, Article 16 stipulates that anyone fleeing political persecution should be given refuge. East Europeans, for instance, have relatively few problems in obtaining sanctuary. Soviet Jews are automatically granted entry visas if they apply directly to West Germany upon arrival in Vienna. and, by Oct. 1, West Germany had taken in 15,491 of the 20, 000 Indo-Chinese it has promised to resettle this year.
But most other applicants for entry visas are less successful. Once an applicant has exhausted all appeal possibilities, German law is ruthlessly strict. Government sources say less than 5 percent of those who come without visas are granted permanent asylum.
Fugitives from Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Turkey are almost never recognized as refugees fleeing persecution. Apart from a few Iraqi and Syrian Kurds, few applicants from the Mideast are accepted.
Nonetheless, observers here are skeptical about whether West Germany's latest measures will have much effect in blocking the flow of "economic asylum seekers." New visa regulations have oly encouraged human trafficking organizations to blossom. "Underground railways," already specialized in bringing in Asian and Middle East Clients at often oxorbitant sums, now include Turks.